Exploring Shanghai’s Jewish History

Shanghai ghetto memorial sign

Shanghai ghetto memorial sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The morning of our third day in Shanghai, we went to the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum (SJRM). Our guide Leon mentioned that there were three important groups of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai, in recent years.

  1. Wealthy Jewish Sephardic families who arrived in Shanghai around 1860, after the Opium Wars. These families played an important role in Shanghai’s development and history. One of the most prominent Jewish families to have lived in Shanghai was the Sassoons who arrived there in the mid 19th century and prospered there.
  2. Ashkenazy Jews who arrived from Russia around 1917 to escape Stalin’s new Communist state and its repressions. Many were professionals and they contributed directly to the improvement of the quality of life in Shanghai. For example, Jewish doctors played an important role during the wars with Japan. In this period in Shanghai, a number of Jews became close to the future leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – the CCP was based in Shanghai.
  3. European Jews, who fled Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1937 to escape the emerging  Holocaust.

The SJRM is primarily dedicated to the last grouping.

Leon also mentioned that Jews and Judaism in China had a long history and many of them looked Chinese from inter-marriage, with Chinese facial features. Subsequently, we learned from Wikipedia that:

Jewish settlers are documented in China as early as the 7th or 8th century CE.

Further research identified Jeffrey Levin’s comprehensive and amazing interesting article entitled “The History of the Jews in China”, tracing them back to the Silk Road traders in the Song Dynasty (960 – 1127).

Returning to the SJRM, it tells the story of how Shanghai accepted some 30,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1941, when most of the World had refused entry to Jewish refugees, closing their eyes to the truths about political anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, Shanghai had sufficient compassion to allow their entry. In this latter regard, the SJRM is very different to the famous Jewish museums of Europe, notably Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese from 1937, yet the Japanese continued to permit the arrival of the Jews. Eventually, under strong pressure from Nazi Germany, Japan effectively interned the Jewish population in a ghetto but most of them survived the World War II (WWII).

The SJRM is a very high quality museum and includes the former Ohel Moshe synagogue which was built for orthodox Russian and German Jews – it functioned as a synagogue until 1946, when it ceased to operate. The synagogue became an important religious and social centre for the Jewish refugees during WWII. In 2007, the Hongkou District People’s Government in China funded the full renovation and the extension of the SJRM. The SJRM uses many historical materials donated by surviving and grateful Jewish families, and combined with state-of-the-art presentation techniques, provides a very interesting and vivid history of the Jewish refugees. After WWII, the Jews left Shanghai for other parts of the World but strong links remained.

We understand from Leon that the Jews are returning to live in Shanghai, often the children or grandchildren of the third wave that escaped the Holocaust and there is now a very small community of about one hundred families.

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